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Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing reveals how Israel controls the conflict narrative

Shireen Abu Akleh
(Design: Jordan News)
The thing about being a journalist in the West Bank is that the Israelis always tend to know where you are and where you are going. During my years of reporting throughout Palestine, I could only gain access to flashpoint areas with an Israeli-issued press card. This insight is critical to understanding the tragic killing of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh Wednesday morning in the West Bank city of Jenin. اضافة اعلان

Immediately after the killing, Israel’s well-rehearsed public relations machine went into hyperdrive to divert responsibility, confuse the narrative, and blame the Palestinians. How Israel and the international media have handled this horrific event speaks volumes about the way the narrative over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict obfuscates reality and denies Palestinians their humanity.

According to several journalists at the scene, the Al Jazeera Arabic journalist was hit by a live bullet below her ear. An Israeli sniper fired the bullet during a military operation in the city. Initially, the Israeli army claimed that the bullet was fired by “Palestinian militants”, but witness accounts quickly refuted this. Moreover, the Israeli army must have been well aware that Abu Akleh and her crew were operating in the city.

Despite clear reports of what transpired from other journalists present at the scene, the Israeli government went on a media offensive with several different versions of what happened on the ground. In these situations, Israel’s PR strategy is to first muddy the information waters with conflicting narratives of the event. In the case of Abu Akleh’s murder, this took the form of a flurry of different quotes and conflicting claims from Israeli officials given to various international media organizations such as The Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times. These claims created an environment in which objective reality was impossible to ascertain, even though there were several witness accounts of precisely what happened.

After it was clear that Israel could not ignore its culpability, officials began to say that it “might have been” the Israeli military that fired on and killed Abu Akleh. The damage was already done. With so many versions of events floating around, Israel’s supporters worldwide could easily claim that we do not know what happened and could never expect a complete account of the truth.

But the PR blitz did not stop there. After Israeli officials admitted that it “might have been their side”, Israel offered to carry out a “joint investigation” with the Palestinian Authority to determine what happened. The PA quickly rejected this offer because of Israel’s spotty record in honestly investigating these matters. Instead, the Palestinians called for an independent investigation. Israel’s media apparatus seized upon the Palestinian rejection as proof that Israel was not solely to blame. The blame was shifted onto the Palestinians for not accepting a joint investigation.

This is a subtle but powerful trick in managing the narrative. What if a Ukrainian journalist were killed by a Russian sniper while covering an incursion in Kyiv. Now imagine that Russia called for a “joint Russian-Ukrainian” investigation into the killing. Ukraine and the international community would flatly reject such an offer, given Russia’s interest in controlling the narrative over the killing. This is what Israel is trying to do with Abu Akleh’s murder. 
There can be no doubt that Israel’s military and political leadership knew the power of Abu Akleh’s reporting. As tensions heat up again and Palestinians look for renewed energy to resist Israel’s brutal military occupation, a voice like Abu Akleh’s is a potent weapon.
Many Palestinian writers have noted that the media coverage of Abu Akleh’s death has been tepid at best. In their first piece on the murder, The New York Times simply said that Abu Akleh, a trail-blazing journalist, “died at age 51”. No mention that she was killed by an Israeli sniper while covering a military incursion in a clearly marked press helmet and flak jacket.

Even the aftermath of Abu Akleh’s death has been overshadowed by the twin prongs of Israeli abuses and a PR spin machine deflecting blame. On Friday, Israeli soldiers fired sound grenades during her funeral and beat mourners carrying her coffin in a hospital complex. At one point, the pall bearers almost dropped the coffin as they came under attack. Israel again tried to divert any condemnation by saying they were “forced to act” after “rioters began throwing stones”.

One can only imagine how similar scenes taking place in Ukraine would be covered by Western media.

Why did an Israeli sniper kill Shireen Abu Akleh? There can be little doubt that the military knew who she was. Abu Akleh was arguably the most visible Arabic-speaking journalist in Palestine. She was the voice of the Second Intifada, and her coverage was critical for the Arab world. Israeli soldiers even used to mock her and her followers while raiding Ramallah. They would walk around the streets saying her famous sign-off, this is Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera in Ramallah.

I had the pleasure of meeting Shireen on several occasions while reporting in Palestine. No matter the situation, she was a reliable and warm presence who will be dearly missed. The shocking reason behind this heinous killing might be the most straightforward. There can be no doubt that Israel’s military and political leadership knew the power of Abu Akleh’s reporting. As tensions heat up again and Palestinians look for renewed energy to resist Israel’s brutal military occupation, a voice like Abu Akleh’s is a potent weapon. With the pull of a trigger, Israel has silenced that voice forever but her memory will not be forgotten soon by the millions of people she inspired over her decades of reporting.


The writer is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.


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